“Fire is humanity’s muse. Since the earliest humans pondered the nature of the sun, fire has captivated us with its mysterious force. Hominid fire — progenitor of dreams — spur to our noblest and most terrifying achievements, key to our aspirations and inextricable from the survival of our race, it burns literally and metaphorically in a place distinct from all other stimuli and matter. No wonder fire holds such creative potency for the human brain; as we gaze into its depths we ever behold a power of poetic and epic proportions.” – Gareth Mason.
The pioneer 20th century workshop potter Michael Cardew told me that there were only two kinds of potters: “mud” and “fire.” The mud potter lives for the plastic sensuality of the clay. The fire potter lives for the alchemy of the kiln. The quote above from a text by Gareth Mason is from the book More is More, edited by Jason Jacques published on the occasion of his exhibition at the Jason Jacques Inc, New York. The artist’s words leave no doubt as to which side of Cardew’s fence he falls.
“We can ‘read’ where fire has been present — it leaves a vivid energetic footprint on all it touches. Metamorphosis through fire is a process that abounds with evocative power. In all of my compositions I remain keenly alive to the fact that the most unprepossessing of sources — a rusty nail, a piece of copper cable, a shard of glass — can acquire significant aesthetic and communicative potential when transformed by fire. This is another language. This is my territory.”
Indeed, it is and Mason has emerged as a virtuoso. The work on the exhibition is his finest art to date, carefully assembled over a period of years. Not only have the surfaces become even more extraordinary but he has achieved the best integration of form and surface yet. The pot is more that just a host for the polychromatic pyrotechnics. In this group they knit seamlessly.
“Naked flame is an umbilical link that re-sensitises our dormant primordial selves, recalling Stone Age fellowship, the cooking of fresh killed meat, the defense of camp and family from life-threatening predators. Primal warmth and comfort is hard-wired in humanity’s collective psyche, hence fire’s pan-cultural magnetism, its hypnotic allure: fire is our most enduring conduit to mystery.”
Mason’s writing is like a religious tract. And to a degree it is. The adoption of grand feu by the French studio potters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was driven by the same fervid language. The kiln was their godhead and high temperatures their rapture. No one was more fixated with fire than Paul Gauguin who in the 1880’s made stoneware vessels and sculpture with the French artist potter Ernest Chaplet. Gauguin wrote that any ceramics that was not high fired was “frivolous and flirtatious.” It was not real love.
I mention this for two reasons. One, because it relates to Mason’s work anyway but more pointedly because the gallery that presents him is also one of the leading gallery’s in world for the work of French grand feu potters; Chaplet, Auguste Delaherche, Jean Carriès, Albert Dammouse and others. (An exhibition of these early studio potters’ work is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Museum and is discussed in a post in this issue). Jason Jacques has taken the unusual road of showing these potters alongside those who follow a similar creed tray, joined by a common creative spirit, yet separated in time by more than a century.
For the early studio potters in an era of Symbolism, the fire was more than a means of turning clay into rock. Nor is it for Mason.
“Fire is never neutral, never bland; rather, it is a livid reminder of the dangerous and intoxicating place between destruction and creation. In the no man’s land between attraction and repulsion, on the brink of danger and the abyss, I am most creatively alive. Fire gives me this awareness; it exhilarates me, refreshes and renews. It reveals to me the possibility of a fiercer beauty: the possibility to speak and the possibility to change minds.”
However do not let the above lure one into thinking that the firing does the work, that Gareth merely splashes glaze and lets fire perform its magic as he suggests in the following remarks:
“I wonder at that molecular morphing encapsulated in the word ‘melt’; I wonder at white heat: heat that sears the eyes to behold and strikes a primal spark in contemporary consciousness; I wonder at rivulets of molten glass, fused on arid clay terrain, a revelation of stark, ceramic splendour; I wonder at those untouchable shimmering forms, glimpsed through the furnace spy hole, each living its hellish rite of passage and whispering across the igneous divide, recalling ancient starry genesis, the cosmic chemistry set, the building blocks of life itself…”
If we sets aside his romantic Bohemian prose and watch him work, Mason leaves very little to chance. He can spend an hour with a fine point brush dotting tiny fragments of pigment on the pot so that they will flow and blend into the coulee of glass.
And to close a with a reminder from the artist about fire’s unacknowledged primacy, “we are all of us floating on fire. Earth fire, the blood of the earth, magma, mantle, larva, engine of tectonics; harbourer of titanic forces, deep-time fire.”
Mason’s work is also featured in Foto File: Robert Cass: Portrait a Pot by Gareth Mason, a photographic essay of a single pot by this artist. Also, see the post on the exhibition of the French artist potters from the Robert Ellison Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which includes a handsome ceramic by Paul Gauguin.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: Detail of Gareth Mason, The Universe Bleeds Too Much, 2010, porcelain, stoneware, sang de boeuf, firebrick inclusion. Photograph courtesy of Jason Jacques.
Any thoughts about this post? Share yours in the comment box below.